Posted on Tue, Oct. 08, 2002

Zoo group opposes closing horse plants

By Barry Shlachter
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Animal-welfare groups campaigning to end horse slaughter in the United States are finding opposition from an unexpected quarter -- professionals concerned with the everyday welfare of zoo animals.

On Monday, nutritionists of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association criticized attempts to close the last two horse-meat plants, both in North Texas, warning that unwanted horses could end up at foreign slaughterhouses with less-than-humane conditions.

It was the first time a U.S. group voiced public support for the beleaguered industry, which is foreign-owned and ships most of its output to Europe for human consumption. Horse-breed associations and the American Association of Equine Practictioners, a veterinarians organization, have remained neutral.

The two plants process 50,000 horses a year. Beltex Corp. of Fort Worth employs 90 workers and reported sales of more than $30 million in 2001, while Dallas Crown of Kaufman has 40 employees and reported $9 million.

Last month, the two Belgian-owned plants filed suit in U.S. District Court in Fort Worth to have a rarely used 1949 Texas law banning horse slaughter for human consumption declared unconstitutional. Their action was prompted by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn's Aug. 7 opinion that the prohibition is legal and carries criminal penalties.

U.S. District Judge Terry Means has given the district attorneys of Tarrant and Kaufman counties until Friday to respond to the plants' request for a temporary injunction so they can keep operating.

"Closing of the horse-meat-processing plants in Texas ... potentially will adversely affect feeding programs in United States zoos," the association's nutrition advisory group steering committee said in a statement. The lean and relatively cheap horse meat is given to big cats such as lions and other carnivores, from polar bears to the American bald eagle and the wild African dog.

The Fort Worth Zoo, for example, spends $45,000 a year on horse-meat-based diets and switching to beef would cost $18,000 more, spokeswoman Lyndsay Nantz said.

Without a regulated outlet for horses, the nutritionists predicted, there would be an "increased likelihood of horse abuse since owners of unwanted horses may end up neglecting them."

The nutritionists said they found no indication that California's 1998 ban on horse slaughter reduced the number of unwanted horses, suggesting that many animals might simply have been shipped out of state or to Mexico.

The association represents 188 zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks.

Chris Heyde, a Washington-based lobbyist for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, rejected the committee's assertions, saying: "It's a fantasy of excuses to defend slaughter.

"Shutting the slaughter down for human consumption has nothing to do with zoo food," Heyde said, insisting there would be other sources of horsemeat.

Barry Shlachter, (817) 390-7718